London is a city that is rich in history. If it were a cake, London would be the equivalent of a chocolate triple fudge gateau with extra cream; yes, I mean very rich! The story of London starts properly in 47 CE when the Romans created the original settlement where the City of London is currently located. The City of Westminster came along in the 11th century and slowly the land and space that lay between it was populated and built on over the years so that you can no longer see where one city starts and the other ends. This amalgamation of the two cities and swallowed up villages is called London.
London has been a spectator to many events in its nearly two thousand year history - the rise and decline of the British Empire, two world wars, The Great Fire of London and other conflagrations, a civil war, destruction of religious houses and monasteries, pestilence and plague and a couple of uprisings. It is a lot to take in, so we thought that it might be fun to test out all the museums that can help fill in some of these gaps. We also have a lot of tours that can help - if you haven’t already, take a peek at our list of public and private tours.
Museums to Visit
The British Museum
The British Museum is one of the most famous history museums in the world. What started out as a collection of books from Sir Hans Sloane’s private library, has expanded into the most impressive collection of artefacts from all around the world. In a nutshell, the museum is filled with souvenirs that early explorers brought back from international travel. Hand luggage in the 18th century was clearly not as restricted as it is today. Some of the more notable artefacts housed here include the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, and the Benin Bronzes. You can learn all about the controversies surrounding helping yourself to other country’s artefacts. There are mummies galore and a room of curiosities. If you can, take the private tour before the museum opens. It not only gives you a great preview of the museum without the crowds but you are already in the museum when the doors open so it gives you a head start on the others.
The Museum of London
The only thing I do not like about this museum is that it is ugly and difficult to find the correct entrance. Once inside, the Museum of London tells the story of London from its times as a Roman settlement, to where it is now as one of the most important cities in the world. The museum has great exhibits on Mediaeval London, the Great Fire of 1666, as well as being home to some ruins of the Roman wall. Should you judge a museum by its gift shop? Yes, you should - this is quite good for all ages and it has some decent books.
There is good news - they are creating a new Museum of London in West Smithfield in the old meat market. You can see it slowly transforming if you find yourself near Farringdon. It should be open by 2026.
Imperial War Museum
The IWM sits in beautiful grounds and the building is pretty imposing. It is hard to imagine that this building was once home to Bedlam, the asylum and psychiatric institution. The Imperial War Museum is home to some of the best galleries on both of the World Wars as well as the Holocaust. If you love military history, you can be lost in here for hours. If you don’t, then I would recommend the V&A.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A is the world’s largest museum dedicated to design, decorative and applied arts. It hosts a whopping 2.27 million artefacts for those who like stats. It is also old; it opened in 1857 and was probably one of the first museums to be open in the evening as it had gas lighting. The V&A and nearby museums were really down to Prince Albert and this enclave was originally called ‘Albertopolis’ in his honour. Sadly, this name has been replaced by the prosaic ‘South Kensington.’ For those aforementioned lovers of statistics and numbers, the museum covers 12.5 acres and its art spans 5,000 years. It is easy to spend several days browsing through this massive museum although they do insist you cannot sleep there. This museum is a must-visit for any design, fashion and art history lover who visits London. They also have amazing courses, lectures and temporary exhibitions. If you wish to attend one of the popular exhibitions and they are booked up, get an annual membership. It is a bit of an investment but firstly you are donating to a great museum, you can pop in and out of the exhibition as many times as you like and you can use the member’s lounge.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
The John Soane’s Museum is a bit like the British Museum but everything here was owned by one man - yep, John. He was such a collector that he had to buy the two houses adjacent to his property to have enough room to show everything. Soane was the son of a bricklayer who rose to become an important architect in London designing such buildings as the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and my local church, St John on Bethnal Green. On his death in 1837, he decided to leave his house and the contents to be enjoyed by the people instead of leaving it to his last surviving son. It is a Neo-Classical dream and a must-see on any visit to London but do check the opening times as it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you like art, wait to be taken on a tour of its tiny art gallery and be amazed at the collection of Hogarth and Canalettos as well as how it is all displayed. There is a sarcophagus, real and replicated antiquities and sculptures, as well as nooks and crannies galore. His design of the space and use of natural light within the interiors of the house is remarkable. You may even go home with ideas on how to redecorate your downstairs lavatory!
Tower of London
Simply put, the Tower of London is an 11th century castle located on the north bank of the River Thames but the tower is not simple. It was first built as a fortress to impress local Londoners and to try and control them in the wake of the Battle of Hastings of 1066.The extra fortification was added over the next couple of hundred years making it more and more secure and practically turned it into a small village. It was a very secure palace and then they worked out that if you can keep people out, you can also keep people in, so it was then used as a prison. Famous prisoners include Sir Walter Raleigh, Anne Boleyn, Rudolph Hess, Ronnie Kray, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. One of the main reasons to visit the palace is to see the Crown Jewels. This is a collection of royal bling from gold salt cellars, solid gold punch bowls as well as the array of crowns and jewels that are worn on state occasions. If I could choose just one thing I would have the coronation sword and scabbard - breathtaking.
Churchill War Rooms
Put yourself in the shoes of the Prime Minister of London during World War II, as you explore the secret underground bunker from which Winston Churchill would operate during the war. More importantly, put yourself in the shoes of all those who worked in the dark, claustrophobic, smokey conditions and who couldn’t tell a soul and who would have mostly needed to leave when it was dark so that they would not be seen appearing from this most secret of bunkers. I think that this museum is a must-see for all the family. Wandering the corridors and looking into the map room and Churchill’s bedroom etc. is one thing but the museum is incredible. It is interactive and engaging and helps highlight just what happened in this undercover bunker and its impact on the outcome of WWII.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Visit the theatre that was practically home to one of the greatest playwrights ever. Even though the original Globe Theatre was burned down in the 17th century, the Globe has been rebuilt on the banks of the river Thames. This rebuilding was all down to a film director, Sam Wannamaker, who had to leave the US during the McCarthy years. He couldn’t understand why everything to do with Shakespeare was based in Stratford upon Avon when Shakespeare lived and worked for much of his life in London writing mostly for Londoners. He made it his life’s work to see that the Globe was rebuilt and that Shakespeare was remembered in London and in particular, in Southwark. Take a tour or see a play - just remember that it is outdoors and if you are standing you will be rained on if the heavens open.
Houses of Parliament
A tour of the Houses of Parliament is a great way to learn about how the modern British Government works. Your tour of Parliament would take you to the two chambers of the Houses of Parliament - the House of Commons and House of Lords. You can also apply to visit parliament whilst they are in session. Watch democracy in action or marvel at the number of members who seem to be nodding off.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.